by Morgan Chalfant · November 9, 2019
William Barr has become one of the most polarizing figures in Washington, and the ongoing Ukraine scandal has further thrust the attorney general and his relationship with President Trump under scrutiny.
In the 11 months since President Trump tapped him as his second attorney general, Barr has emerged as one of Trump’s most trusted Cabinet officials. He is a frequent face at official events at the White House and elsewhere, and the president regularly cheers him for the job he is doing as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
Barr has also been at the center of multiple politically charged episodes in the Trump presidency, in part as a result of his proximity to the president. He’s a popular target of Democrats, who accuse him of politicizing the Department of Justice (DOJ) and acting as the president’s personal attorney. Indeed, some legal experts say Barr has taken steps that undermine his commitment to keep DOJ above politics.
Now, his relationship with Trump and his pledged commitment to independence are being put to the test amid the fallout over the president’s phone call with the leader of Ukraine, during which Trump suggested his counterpart in Kiev to coordinate with Barr and personal attorney Rudy Giuliani on probes into the 2016 election and the Biden family.
Trump vigorously denied reports this week that he wanted Barr to hold a press conference declaring he broke no laws during his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and that the attorney general denied to do so. On Friday, Trump told reporters that he didn’t make the request but that he believed Barr would oblige if he did.
“If I asked Bill Barr to have a press conference, I think he’d do it. But I never asked him to have a press conference. Why should I? You know why I wouldn’t do it? Because the phone call was perfect,” Trump said at the White House. DOJ did not return a request for comment.
The phone call is at the center of House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
The attorney general has been on a collision course with Democrats ever since he managed the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, penning a four-page memo describing Mueller’s principal findings that set the narrative in a way that was favorable for his boss before the full 448-page report was made public.
Barr’s memo led Mueller to register his own objections in writing.
Barr has also authorized an inquiry focused on the U.S. intelligence collection on the 2016 Trump campaign’s links to Russia, a probe that is viewed skeptically because it dovetails with Trump’s desire to “investigate the investigators” and discredit those within the intelligence community he believed worked against him.
“He proved me to be dead wrong,” said Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor and critic of Trump who says he lost confidence in Barr after he “mischaracterized” the Mueller report.
“Once someone in a position that is supposed to be independent does something like that, everything gets colored through that lens,” Mimi Rocah, a fellow at Pace University’s law school and former assistant U.S. attorney, said of Barr’s handling of the Mueller report.
“Even if he should get the benefit of the doubt sometimes and isn’t doing something for political reasons as it may seem, why would we give him the benefit of the doubt?”
Barr has rejected the notion that he is acting as Trump’s personal attorney, telling Fox News in a recent interview: “That’s completely wrong and there is no basis for it, and I act on behalf of the United States.”
And those familiar with Barr say they don’t believe he is acting with political motivations, saying some of the criticism has been misplaced.
“A lot of people are troubled about all this publicity that the attorney general is politically motivated,” said one former Justice Department official who worked under the Trump administration. “I don’t believe that is true.”
The person acknowledged that Barr invited some criticism by saying there was “no collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia at an April press conference on Mueller’s report — repeating a key talking point of the president’s.
But the former official argued scrutiny of Barr’s memo was unfair and that people haven’t given the attorney general enough credit for releasing the Mueller report with minimal redactions, including damaging details about Trump’s potentially obstructive conduct.
“You need to consider both sides if you’re going to criticize him for his statements,” the former official said.
Barr entered the administration as a Trump outsider. He is widely recognized for having a wealth of experience in law and the executive branch, having already served as attorney general under former President George H.W. Bush.
Barr is also known for having an expansive view of executive power, as was laid bare in a memo he wrote to the Trump administration in June 2018 that caused Democrats to be wary of his nomination.
His tenure has been marked by a strong relationship with the president, in decided contrast to his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, a fierce Trump ally who found himself jettisoned from the president’s good graces over Sessions’s recusal from the Russia probe as a result of his participation with the campaign.
Trump ousted Sessions a year ago, one day after the November midterm elections. He’s now running to reclaim his Senate seat in Alabama, though Trump has thus far avoided committing to any candidate in the race.
“I think it’s just the circumstances,” said Ian Prior, who worked under Sessions at the Justice Department. “Sessions was obviously part of the campaign and that’s the way it worked out.”
“I do believe that Barr is his own attorney general. I believe that he is going to make the decisions he thinks are the right ones,” Prior said.
Barr’s relationship with Trump could be strained by controversy surrounding the president’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky. Trump asked Kiev to probe a debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee server and to look into the Biden family.
The episode illustrated the way in which Trump has conflated the roles of his personal lawyer and the attorney general and it reportedly angered Barr that he had been associated with Giuliani.
The Justice Department has sought to separate Barr from the controversy, first by saying he never spoke to Trump or Giuliani about a Biden investigation and, later, distancing DOJ from acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s admission that aid to Ukraine was held up in part because Trump sought assistance with the department’s Russia inquiry.
At the same time, DOJ’s criminal division declined to investigate a campaign finance law violation referral about the call.
While some expected Barr to be subpoenaed in connection with the inquiry, House Democrats have curiously made no such announcements. A House Intelligence Committee aide declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Trump and his supporters are eager for the Russia inquiry to deliver a blow to agents they have accused of biased motivations in investigating the president’s campaign.
“I can’t tell you what’s happening. I will tell you this: I think you’re going to see a lot of really bad things,” Trump told reporters last month, one day after The New York Times reported that the inquiry had become criminal.
Barr has tapped Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham to lead the investigation; Durham is well regarded, which has to some extent insulated the Justice Department from criticism.
Still, Barr has endured scrutiny for reportedly traveling to foreign countries asking for help with the investigation; Trump also contacted foreign countries at Barr’s request to seek assistance.
“Presumably if there was something improper going on, Durham would stand up to it,” said Randall Eliason, a George Washington University law professor.
Eliason, a former assistant U.S. attorney, also said reports that the probe is criminal do not necessarily foretell criminal charges.
“I think we should be in a kind of wait-and-see mode, because on the one hand it could be a kind of abuse of power that people are afraid of,” Eliason said.
“But on the other hand, the bar is so low to set to being a criminal inquiry that it wouldn’t take much and it’s a far cry from actually indicting someone.”
The Hill · by Morgan Chalfant · November 9, 2019